This past week the world lost a true giant, a tzadik, a mensch. You may have never met him, but that is truly your loss. His name was Leonard Roth and all who knew him surely agree that he was deeply adored and respected.
Leonard was born 58 years ago to a young Jewish couple named Eveline and Morris. They had settled in a middle class suburban New Jersey town known as Clark. Both were hard working, active in their synagogue and involved in the community in multiple ways. Morris was known as an outspoken liberal, fighting for minorities and never afraid to take an unpopular stance.
Eveline was always the voice of calm. Herself an immigrant from Germany, she had lived in America since childhood and dealt with the blows of life with equanimity, never rancor. And so, when Morris was blowing smoke and fire, complaining about injustice, she was stalwart and restrained. They matched each other brilliantly.
When Leonard arrived, the two pieces of the Morris/Eveline jigsaw fell into place. They were united. They would raise their son with love. They would also commit to letting him fly. Leonard was never held back. That’s how the entire town grew to know him. He was free as a bird.
Leonard was child number one for the Roths. It was immediately apparent that all was not right. They brought him home and proceeded to calmly raise him. And, at the same time, to bravely go forward and produce three more children, all very close in age.
I first met the Roths when Leonard was about 6. Our shul community was asked to commit to an ambitious project called patterning. It was based on a theory that reverting a developmentally delayed child to infancy would result in his overcoming his disabilities by going through the motions that preceded walking.
The project required four adults at a time to create the movements required to crawl. Several times a day. Every single day. It was a gigantic effort which went on for at least a year.
When I heard the call for volunteers I knew I could not help. I had four little kids at home. I also knew that I could not ignore their plea for help. I volunteered my husband who, without hesitation, agreed to become one of the volunteers.
Our community was magnificent. When one speaks of tikkun olam, this is its personification. From all walks of life our members joined in the effort to help the Roths. They were diligent, passionate and, like the mailman is supposed to be, not deterred by wind or snow or sleet or rain. To my recollection they never missed a day. I am proud to have raised my children in such a place, where the essence of Judaism was a part of their lives.
But, sad to say, the patterning simply did not work. Eventually the project was abandoned. Its only accomplishment was bringing the disparate members of our shul together so that they could get to know Leonard and his family.. Many friendships were born around Leonard’s patterning table. We became good friends with Morris and Eveline. And, of course with Leonard as well.
Leonard had a condition now known as Williams Syndrome. It is marked by a unique walk and mental limitations. It is also known as a condition where the child is extraordinarily friendly. This is a child who is totally trusting, and entirely loving. I never saw Leonard angry. Never. Who would not adore a person like Leonard?
Leonard attended Johnson Regional High School where he was selected the most popular student in his class. Leonard was also an honorary member of the Clark Volunteer Fire Department.
In our community, Jewish and not, everyone loved Leonard. He chatted with everyone. Everyone was his friend. Police. Firemen. Shopkeepers. Strangers in the street. He had no enemies.
Now, with a child like Leonard, many parents might be inclined to be overly protective. The child lacks a degree of sophistication. This is not a child who can be taught to be wary of strangers. Maybe best to keep this child under watch and key? To confine him?
No. This was not the way of Eveline and Morris. They knew that Leonard had to be allowed to roam. A boy who loved everyone had to be free. And so Leonard learned to ride a bicycle. It was a ubiquitous bicycle. When I remember the boyhood of Leonard I always see him dashing around town on his bike. Waving. Smiling. Stopping to chat. No one in Clark, New Jersey did not know Leonard and his bike.
It speaks well of Clark that Leonard lived his life in safety. The town returned his trust. He was treated with affection and respect. Bad things did not happen to this good person. Love was returned.
Morris and Eveline both predeceased Leonard. It became the duty of his siblings to take care of their brother. They did so magnificently. Until last week when Leonard’s happy time on earth was completed.
Dearest Leonard, may you rest in peace. You had a good life. That is more than one can say for many. You overcame. You lived a life of dignity and the love you shared was returned over and over. You shall be missed! You enabled ordinary people to become heroes, and you became a hero to them. You were really a very accomplished guy and no one who knew you will ever forget you. Including me. Shalom chaver!